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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Colleges Stumble in Aiding Voter Registration

A study finds that apathy is not the only barrier to youth turnout at the polls.

September 14, 2004|Emma Schwartz | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — More than one-third of colleges and universities do not comply with a federal law requiring that they help students register to vote, a Harvard University study released Monday said.

Young people have been maligned for turning out on election day in small numbers ever since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972, but the study suggests they face more barriers to registration than just apathy.

"Colleges and universities, whose mission it is to educate young people, could do much better," said Leslie Pope, a Harvard student who helped with the survey. Potential new voters "should have more resources than ... Google."

The 1998 Higher Education Act mandated that federally funded colleges and universities make at least a minimum effort to help students register to vote -- a sort of last chance to encourage civic participation among young people.

The study, sponsored by Harvard's Institute of Politics and the Chronicle of Higher Education, found that only 17% of the schools surveyed were in complete compliance by requesting voter forms at least 120 days prior to the registration deadline.

David King, director of research at the Institute of Politics, said those figures probably overstated the efforts on college campuses, because some universities that did not comply with the law may have chosen not to participate in the survey.

In a presidential election where a few hundred thousand people -- or fewer -- could swing the vote in some states, the study's findings are particularly significant. In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio, for instance, students represent more than 1% of the voting population, according to the nonpartisan policy organization 18to35, a Washington-based group that advocates youth participation in the political process.

Although registration does not always translate into votes, King said, "if they are mobilized in those three states, they can play a significant role in this election."

In 2000, 36.1% of citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in the presidential election, one of the lowest turnout rates among the various age groups.

The study did not find any regional discrepancies, but it found a sort of institutional difference.

Public universities were more likely to comply with the law than private ones. And junior colleges had a higher rate of compliance than four-year undergraduate programs -- 68%, compared with 52% of four-year programs surveyed.

The study surveyed 815 college and university presidents across the country in August, 249 of whom responded.

Lack of compliance sometimes boiled down to money, said Stephen Hensley, dean of students at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

He said his school was "not making a very effective effort as an institution" to register students. With budget cuts, he said, the university had to pull back, and voter registration was not at the top of the list.

"I'm just not sure that it is a higher-education priority. May- be it should be," Hensley said.

Even so, he said, students seemed fairly apathetic to politics. "If we had the best programs, I'm not sure we would be registering a whole lot of people," he said.

But some students have reported challenges from local officials when trying to register to vote. Students at the University of Arizona said they had received conflicting information from the county registrar and had even been told that registering out-of-state students could be considered falsifying residency, which is a felony.

"We've been having a lot of problems with discrepancies with the law and how to interpret it, and it's very much disenfranchised students," said Arizona student Juliana Zuccaro, who has been running a voter registration drive for women on campus.

Despite the limited voter registration effort, the study found that political activity on campuses was high, with 80% reporting political speakers on campus and 70% sponsoring voter registration drives.

Even the best universities could do more, King said, by doing things such as including registration forms with college acceptance letters.

"College is the last, best effort to turn the trend around," King said.

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